The term “culture of innovation” is ubiquitous in today’s business lexicon. As so often occurs with common phrases, repetition erodes meaning, and in this case, it may supplant meaningful action to create and support such a culture. Catchphrases may get smiles and nods, but they do not, on their own, get things done.
Lip service to innovation is all too often accompanied by a stubborn commitment to institutional knowledge and an existing culture that will actively resist change. And without change, there can be no innovation.
Changing the conversation
Before a culture of innovation can take root, the existing culture must be examined and addressed. If the current culture is not fulfilling organizational needs, a comprehensive examination makes it possible to evaluate it thoroughly and test it for honesty and utility. Make sure the company’s actions align with its stated mission and values. Once this evaluation is complete, it is possible to course correct for any drift that has occurred between stated company values and actual culture.
To foster a new culture, company leadership must repeat the mission, values, and desired outcomes of the culture shift until they hear employees begin to incorporate them into the company’s vernacular. Once the idea of the new culture has started to grow, it needs a chance to survive. Organizational inertia will cause things to slip back toward familiar patterns. Without diligent nurturing of the new culture, it is easier to revert to old habits than to develop the momentum to create new ones.
The challenges of innovation
Large organizations resist change in part because of institutional momentum. When everyone has always done something a certain way, it is hard to change habits.
Employees need the space to fail, and they need to be rewarded for trying, even when they’re unsuccessful. Rewards for failure seem counterintuitive, but employees who support the new culture and strive toward innovation are valuable, even if they don’t immediately succeed, because they show themselves open to change and experimentation.
This will set the company up to view calculated risk-taking as a skill to be nurtured. This, more than anything else, will help build an enthusiasm for innovation and a willingness to take the risks necessary to make it happen.
The courage to fail
Variations on the story abound, but Thomas Edison is said to have worked for months on the development of a nickel-iron battery without arriving at a final design. A longtime associate of Edison’s asked, “Isn’t it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven’t been able to get any results?” The inventor’s immediate reply was, “Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.”
Without failure, there can be no innovation.
Every technological advancement is built on the bones of failure. Without first discovering thousands of ways not to make a battery, Edison was unlikely to discover the method that ultimately worked. Give employees room to fail, so they are free to be creative and take chances that will lead to the next great innovation.
Employees can’t innovate if they are afraid of losing their position or chance for advancement. Everyone knows a story about a colleague making a mistake and paying for it with their job. Perhaps it was the final straw after a long career of mistakes. Perhaps it was just the wrong mistake on the wrong day, but the lesson of the story is clear: Mistakes mean negative consequences. Every time an employee hears a similar story, they play it a little safer the next time they make a decision, and safe decisions rarely result in innovation.
Innovation and product management
To demonstrate support for innovation, support experimentation and failure. Support the big idea. Help the employee who can envision the next big thing bring their idea to life. Even if the first several attempts come up short, if the idea is good, reward the person who had it, and double down on making it a reality. Experimentation and failure are steppingstones on the road to innovation.
The product manager’s role in innovation is one of cultivation, recognition, and iteration. A professional PM will nurture the seeds of creative ideas, recognize the value — or lack thereof — in each project, and encourage iteration on promising failures. To the extent ideas, experimentation, and failure in pursuit of innovation can be guided, the PM acts as guide, or wrangler, to bring an innovative idea to fruition.
To learn more about the benefits of a culture of innovation — and the importance of professional certification for product and brand managers — visit aipmm.com.